Column: As CEO, How Should I Spend My Time?

Column: As CEO, How Should I Spend My Time?

As a CEO, your time is a vital company resource. How you spend your workday — the meetings you're in, the initiatives you weigh in on, even where you are physically — influences how decisions are made.

I've long described decision-making as the defining factor of company culture because it determines how leaders lead and how teams collaborate, and every competitive advantage (or disadvantage) stems from these two factors. This means you set the tone for your entire culture, whether you realize it or not, just by how you spend your day. No pressure.

Determining how you spend your time is much easier at the start of your company because it's driven by necessity. Everyone is in the trenches and wearing multiple hats, which means in addition to being CEO, you're also part of sales, marketing, human resources and facilities. You're part of every decision, because every decision as a young company is a big one. Eventually, though, you scale enough to hire people to make those decisions. Then what do you do?

The Biggest Mistake Leaders Make

Here's where many leaders at high-growth companies trip up: You keep doing what you're used to doing, long past the point of necessity, not because you're a micromanager but simply because of inertia. Once you're in a routine, you tend to stay in that routine unless you have a mechanism to force a change or at least a reevaluation. And this mechanism needs to trigger frequently, not just when you expand your leadership team.

I've learned this through experience. At several points in my tenure at Zillow, particularly when we entered rapid growth as a public company, I found myself sitting in meetings that I didn't need to be in, my team deferring to me on a decision that they should be making, my calendar morphing into a hamster wheel and my inbox into a game of whack-a-mole… all eating into the time I should have been spending on the bigger picture as CEO. I needed to recalibrate.

How to Break the Cycle

To reclaim and refocus my time, I developed a system: Every three to six months, and even more frequently during phases of hyper growth, I forced myself to rethink how I managed my day. I would delete all recurring meetings and start from scratch -- declaring "calendar bankruptcy." I'd also declare "data bankruptcy" by removing myself from all data distribution lists and weekly reports which I'd accumulated as regular emails. I'd revisit our company priorities, determine how as CEO I should be engaging, then rebuild my calendar and inbox from there. It took time, but it was invaluable and oddly cathartic.

As a leader, recalibrating is so critical, because you outgrow certain decisions. A tangible example: Early in Zillow's time as a publicly traded company, we began hosting a ton of trade marketing events that were central to our industry engagement strategy and a sizable investment. I was actively involved in the decision-making throughout the process in the first couple of years, but once we got to a certain size I removed myself entirely from the details. I'd attend the kickoff and the "know before you go" two weeks prior, but every other decision was delegated to my capable team.

Do It for Your Team

Recalibrating is not just about making the best use of your time. It's also about the health of your organization. Layers of decision makers slow things down by reducing autonomy and adding approval hurdles. Fast-growing companies don't have time for this, and as CEO you can actively fight this entangling web by setting the example of delegation. Good things happen when you trust and empower your team.

The one caveat I'd add to all of this: When you delegate, you need to be prepared to accept the decisions... even when you disagree. But that's another article altogether.

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Ben Bergman

Ben Bergman is the newsroom's senior finance reporter. Previously he was a senior business reporter and host at KPCC, a senior producer at Gimlet Media, a producer at NPR's Morning Edition, and produced two investigative documentaries for KCET. He has been a frequent on-air contributor to business coverage on NPR and Marketplace and has written for The New York Times and Columbia Journalism Review. Ben was a 2017-2018 Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Economic and Business Journalism at Columbia Business School. In his free time, he enjoys skiing, playing poker, and cheering on The Seattle Seahawks.

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